Will we ever see a fully self-charging solar production car?

Image of Alisdair Suttie
Author: | Updated: 09 Aug 2019 14:23

The electric car is at a similar stage to the one the original automobile found itself 120 years ago. The basic idea of personalised transport has been established, but the source of its fuel is still very much up for grabs. Way back when, the fight was between steam, petrol and, yes, electricity.

In the pioneering days of the car, electricity was a popular choice and accounted for a large section of the market, especially in the USA. Its advantages of clean, quiet running were appreciated in towns and cities. Its simplicity of operation was another sales feature.

Hyundai solar roof

However, petrol won out because of its cheap availability and a similar race is now on to find a way to power EVs. For sure, the charging network in the UK and many other countries is growing fast, but so are EV sales. In the UK, BEV (battery electric vehicle) sales were up by 158% in July 2019 compared to the same month the previous year. Overall, so far in 2019 BEV sales are up by 70%, so demand is expanding at the same time as sales of petrol and diesel cars are declining. This clearly shows a shift from fossil-fuelled cars to EVs.

The overall number of BEV sales is still small as a percentage of the total market, but there is a definite shift in buying patterns. This means whichever charging format comes out on top stands to be not only the dominant force but the most profitable.

Yet there is also a charging technology being put forward that could undermine this whole competition and it’s solar. Hyundai is the latest to go down this path with its Sonata Hybrid, which has solar panels on its roof and the Korean firm says this system is able to recover as much as 60% of the battery’s charge.

Hyundai Sonata

Hyundai Sonata featuring a solar roof panel

As the Sonata is a hybrid, most of its power comes from the petrol engine, so the solar panels are claimed to provide an added range of up to 800 miles on electric power. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a welcome addition but it isn’t going to convince too many to shell out for the higher cost of the Sonata. Another downside is this Hyundai won’t be sold in the UK or many other countries as cars like the Sonata are simply not popular regardless of what fuel makes them go. It’s also worth noting that Toyota has already employed solar panels on its Prius and Tesla is now offering them as an option.

None of this has stopped Dutch firm Lightyear from developing its One, which is slated to go on sale in 2021 with a reservation fee of €119,000. That bags you an aluminium and carbon fibre construction with solar panels covering the entire upper surfaces of the body to collect as much solar energy as possible.

The Lightyear One can be recharged using a normal plug-in point, but the company says it’s possible to drive it without ever having to go near one. Admittedly, this would be in particular circumstances where the driver was only using the car for short commutes and lived somewhere with regular uninterrupted sunshine to charge the car as it was being driven and when parked up. Even so, it’s an intriguing avenue and one that could well have the current crop of EV manufacturers worried.

Lightyear One concept

Lightyear One solar Concept

When the likes of Tesla and Nissan have invested so much in a EV charging network to kickstart the chicken-and-egg cycle of charging availability versus consumers buying the vehicles, a car that doesn’t need such a network would be very disruptive to those companies that have seen themselves as the very disruptors of the auto industry

Naturally, cost will be a huge factor in whether or not solar panels make a big impact as the EV power source of choice. With the Lightyear One being so expensive and only planned for limited production numbers, it’s not going to be the EV of the people. Price hasn’t held back Tesla from dominating the debate, but that’s changing as more cars join the fray and the likes of the Jaguar I-Pace and Audi e-tron have shown Tesla is far from the last word in this sector. Lower down the price scale, the Nissan Leaf is very good, but cheaper EVs are arriving all the time and Vauxhall’s Corsa-e may be a step towards much wider use and acceptance of electric cars by the general driving public.

superchargers

When the likes of Tesla and Nissan have invested so much in a EV charging network to kickstart the chicken-and-egg cycle of charging availability versus consumers buying the vehicles, a car that doesn’t need such a network would be very disruptive to those companies that have seen themselves as the very disruptors of the auto industry. Naturally, cost will be a huge factor in whether or not solar panels make a big impact as the EV power source of choice.

With the Lightyear One being so expensive and only planned for limited production numbers, it’s not going to be the EV of the people. Price hasn’t held back Tesla from dominating the debate, but that’s changing as more cars join the fray and the likes of the Jaguar I-Pace and Audi e-tron have shown Tesla is far from the last word in this sector. Lower down the price scale, the Nissan Leaf is very good, but cheaper EVs are arriving all the time and Vauxhall’s Corsa-e may be a step towards much wider use and acceptance of electric cars by the general driving public.

Honda's solar car

The idea of a solar car isn’t new – here’s a Honda from 1996

Solar panels could dictate the size and shape of cars due to the need for maximum possible space for panels on upper surfaces combined with best possible aerodynamics. Demand will drive more investment and speed up the development of solar panels for cars, which is where the real worry must lie for companies like Tesla and Nissan, as well as others such as the many Chinese makers focusing on EVs.

There are some downsides to having a car powered by its own self-charging solar energy system. For starters, the need for sufficient panels means car design is likely to be heavily influenced by the need for large upper-facing surfaces to capture as much sunlight as possible. Take a look at the Lightyear One and it’s no beauty pageant winner. There’s also the perennial question of whether or not a solar-powered car would work in countries in areas such as northern Europe where we don’t see as much sun and have long winters with short days. This is where a plug-in system could become a supplementary source of electricity rather than the prime supplier. Yet that would still require a charging network and ready access to chargers that defeats the purpose of going solar.

Kia and Hyundai reveal solar charging system technology to power future eco-friendly vehicles_3 (1)

The key points that are hugely in favour of heading down the solar route begin with freeing the car and driver from a charging network. In an instant, it removes one of the big barriers for many potential drivers from choosing an EV, namely the change in behaviour needed to hook up the car to the mains rather than top up with petrol or diesel at a filling station.

The other crucial advantage of solar is it’s free. If you could run on solar energy alone, there is no cost attached and no way for governments to tax it, though they will find other ways to levy money from drivers. With an endless supply of free fuel, the car could well have a brighter future than ever imagined by those pioneers 120 years ago.

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